This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behar, describes the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the latter of which was an economic “rebooting” every 50th year when slaves and prisoners were set free, debts were forgiven and all land was returned to its original owners. While there is much to sayabout the radical economic philosophy embedded in the laws of the Jubilee year, I’d like to focus attention on one verse in particular:
But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me. (Leviticus 25:23)
Earlier, God describes the land given to the Israelites as an “achuzzah” – or tenured land (see verse 13). As commentator Baruch Levine points out, “The Israelites are God’s tenants, so to speak. They do not possess or rule the land as a result of conquest, and they do not have the right to dispose of it as if it were entirely their own.” (“The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus,” p. 172.)
It is also notable that the Israelites are referred to as gerim (translated here as “strangers”), a legal term that denotes a resident non-citizen. It is the same term used in the well-known and oft-repeated commandment “Do not oppress the stranger, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” In those cases, the commandment was presented to the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power in the land. But in the context of the Jubilee year, the Torah is very clearly leveling the playing field – saying to the Israelite nation in a sense, “When it comes right down to it, you are all strangers here.”
While God’s statement, “all the land is Mine and you are but strangers resident with Me” certainly has powerful economic and environmental implications, it also has a great deal to teach us in the age of Zionism – an era in which an ethic of Jewish entitlement to a specific piece of land has run rampant. Indeed, while Zionists commonly claim“God gave this land to us,” the laws of the Jubilee suggest otherwise. The land does not “belong” to anyone but God, and we are at best tenants upon it.
In the end, although many Zionists treat the Torah as the Jews “deed of sale” to the land of Israel, it might be more accurate to describe it as a “lease with very explicit conditions.” Later, in Deuteronomy, this conditional language reaches its apex. As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses reminds them that they could be exiled from the land in an instant if they do not remain faithful to God’s covenant (see for instance, Deuteronomy 28).
This much seems clear: we will not be worthy of the land if we betray our own religious teachings and cling to misguided, exclusivist claims. As the Torah teaches us: those who insist that the land “belongs” to them and them alone will only endanger the collective future of all who live upon it.
As I’ve written previously, this past March my synagogue Tzedek Chicago, following a long process of membership deliberation, announced our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a congregational core value. As I/we fully anticipated, the response to our move has been powerful, ranging from deep appreciation to vicious denunciation – with very little in between.
Needless to say, the issue of anti-Zionism has become something of a third rail in the Jewish community over the past few years. There have been increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism; just this past week, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt devoted an entire speech to this issue at the ADL’s National Leader’s Summit. In truth, our congregation’s decision to affirm anti-Zionism was partly motivated by this phenomenon. As our board statement explained, the tenor of the current moment has made the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists all the more critical.
The response to our decision on social media was, to put it charitably, “lively” – particularly on Twitter. But beyond the nastiness of toxic trolling, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the negative blowback contained a familiar and recurring trope: namely that Zionism is intrinsic to Judaism. Thus, our critics claimed, opposing Zionism is tantamount to opposing to Judaism itself.
This claim has long been a common line of attack against anti-Zionists. This past Wednesday, as a matter of fact, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt used this very line of reasoning in this (highly recommended) New Yorker interview:
Zionism, a desire to go back to Jerusalem, the longing for Zion, isn’t something that David Ben-Gurion came up with. It isn’t something that Theodor Herzl came up with. It has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years. You can’t open a Torah on a Saturday morning for your daily prayer, you can’t go through a holiday, without seeing these references.
Greenblatt is correct, of course, to say that the longing for Zion has long been embedded in the faith of Judaism. Eretz Yisrael is undeniably intrinsic to Jewish tradition – and yes, it is ubiquitous throughout the Torah, liturgy and rabbinic tradition in general. However – and this is a big however – the notion of creating a sovereign Jewish nation state was never part of the Jewish land tradition until the rise of political Zionism in 19th century Europe.
And herein lies the central fallacy of the Zionism = Judaism argument: for most of Jewish history, the yearning for Zion has been rooted in an idealized messianic vision. The very idea of a mass migration to the land in order to establish a 3rd Jewish commonwealth was commonly considered to be an anathema – i.e., a “forcing of God’s hand” – by traditional rabbinic authorities.
This does not mean that the land is not important in Jewish tradition – quite the contrary. Following the destruction of the Temple in 73 CE, diaspora Jewry uplifted the land tradition as a spiritualized ideal. But the yearning to return to Zion was a characteristically framed as messianic aspiration – not a political program. This aspiration was expressed in a number of ways: through prayers expressing a desire to rebuild the Temple, through Biblical laws that centered Eretz Yisrael, even as they were adapted for observance in the diaspora, through festivals and through Torah readings that invoked God’s promise of the land to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to name but a few.
It is important to understand that Zionism – i.e., the political ideology and movement to create a sovereign Jewish state in historic Palestine – did not arise until relatively recently in Jewish history. Yes, Zionism undeniably a Jewish movement, and a successful one at that. But it is also a quintessential movement of Jewish modernity that represented a conscious and radical break with traditional Judaism as it was understood and practiced until that time. While it has clearly been embraced by a majority of Jews in Israel and throughout the diaspora, the claim that “it has been embedded in the faith and the traditions of Judaism for thousands of years” is false and in fact, deeply disingenuous.
It is even more disingenuous to claim that the current rise of anti-Zionist sentiment among Jews is in any way anti-Jewish or antisemitic. On the contrary, many Jews – including increasing numbers of young Jews – embrace anti-Zionism not as a matter of traditional messianic belief, but as a deeply held matter of Jewish conscience. Those of us who identify as Jewish anti-Zionists recognize the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism: i.e., the creation of a Jewish majority state through the dispossession and oppression of another people.
I completely understand the outrage of Zionist Jews by such a suggestion. But as an anti-Zionist Jew, I will never yield an inch to the misguided, cynical suggestion that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to opposition to Judaism itself.
In the end, this struggle is not over what is or isn’t Judaism. Rather, it is over what kind of Judaism we will ultimately seek to affirm.
Keen observers have long noted that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is essentially a xenophobic Israel-advocacy organization masquerading as a Jewish civil rights organization. If there was ever any doubt, this became abundantly clear at the ADL’s National Leadership Summit on May 1, when CEO Jonathan Greenblatt delivered a prerecorded speech, ostensibly to discuss the mission of the organization in light of its just-released 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents. Instead, Greenblatt spent the majority of his time denouncing anti-Zionism (i.e., legitimate opposition to an ideology that promotes an exclusively Jewish state in historic Palestine) as antisemitism. In his speech, he specifically vilified three Palestine solidarity groups — Students for Justice in Palestine, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Jewish Voice for Peace — terming them “hateful” and “extremist.”
Greenblatt’s doubling down was particularly notable because his message represented a change from the ADL’s official statement that “anti-Zionism isn’t always antisemitic.” Indeed, it was difficult to not be struck by the sheer amount of time he spent on the subject — and the vehemence with which he pressed his talking points:
To those who still cling to the idea that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism — let me clarify this for you as clearly as I can — anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
Anti-Zionism as an ideology is rooted in rage. It is predicated on one concept: the negation of another people, a concept as alien to the modern discourse as white supremacy. It requires a willful denial of even a superficial history of Judaism and the vast history of the Jewish people. And, when an idea is born out of such shocking intolerance, it leads to, well, shocking acts.
Greenblatt’s claims were particularly cynical because they actually flew directly in the face of the ADL’s own 2021 Audit of Antisemitic Incidents, which found that of the 2,717 incidents it recorded last year, 345 (just over 12 percent) involved “references to Israel or Zionism” (and of these, “68 took the form of propaganda efforts by white supremacist groups.”) Though he actually opened his speech by invoking his report, Greenblatt actively misrepresented its findings, choosing instead to vilify three organizations that legitimately protest Israel’s human rights abuse of Palestinians. Most outrageously, he actually equated anti-Zionists with “white supremacists and alt-right ilk who murder Jews,” as if the rhetoric of Palestine solidarity activists could in any way be comparable to the mass murder of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
By singling out these Palestine solidarity groups, Greenblatt was clearly employing a familiar strategy utilized by the Israeli government and its supporters: blaming the current rise in antisemitism on Muslims, Palestinians, and those who dare to stand in solidarity with them. The “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” trope has also been the favored political tactic of liberal and conservative politicians alike. It is most typically invoked to attack supporters of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. Pro-Palestinian activists well know there is no better way to silence and vilify their activism than to raise the specter of antisemitism.
As journalist Peter Beinart has put it, “It is a bewildering and alarming time to be a Jew, both because antisemitism is rising and because so many politicians are responding to it not by protecting Jews but by victimizing Palestinians.” Of course, the rise in antisemitism is alarming, but as ever, the greatest threat to Jews comes from far-right nationalists and white supremacists — not Palestinians and those who stand with them. It is particularly sobering to contemplate that this definition essentially defines all Palestinians as antisemitic if they dare to oppose Zionism. But what else can Palestinians be expected to do, given that Zionism resulted in their collective dispossession, forcing them from their homes and lands and subjecting them to a crushing military occupation?
The growing crackdown on anti-Zionism can also be understood as a conscious effort to stem the growing number of Jews in the U.S. — particularly young Jews — who do not identify with the state of Israel and openly identify as anti-Zionist. The backlash against this phenomenon has been fierce — at times perversely so. In a widely discussed 2021 essay, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy lamented the growth of anti-Zionist Jews, by labeling them as “un-Jews.” Last May, immediately following Israel’s military onslaught on Gaza, a Chicago-area Reform rabbi gave a sermon in which she called anti-Zionist Jews “Jews in name only” who must be “kept out of the Jewish tent.”
Beyond these extreme protestations, it bears noting that there has always been principled Jewish opposition to Zionism. While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are anti-Semites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish).
My congregation, Tzedek Chicago, recently amended our core values statement to say that we are “anti-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people — an injustice that continues to this day.” Our decision to articulate anti-Zionism as a value came after months of congregational deliberation, followed by a membership vote. As the Tzedek Chicago board explained our decision:
Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsion, home demolition, land expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In a 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report, stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored — on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
While we are the first progressive synagogue to openly embrace anti-Zionism, there is every reason to believe we will not be the only one. At the very least, we hope our decision will widen the boundaries of what is considered acceptable discourse on the subject in the Jewish community. As Shaul Magid recently — and astutely — wrote:
[Israel is] a country stuck with an ideology that impedes equality, justice, and fairness. Maybe the true messianic move is not to defend Zionism, but to let it go. Maybe the anti-Zionists are on to something, if we only allow ourselves to listen.
Whether or not organizations such as the ADL succeed in their efforts to falsely conflate anti-Zionism with antisemitism depends largely on the response of the liberal and centrist quarters of the Jewish community. Indeed, Greenblatt’s doubling down on anti-Zionism may well reflect a political strategy seeking to drive a wedge in the Jewish community between liberal Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews. Jewish establishment organizations, such as the ADL and American Jewish Committee view this moment as an opportunity to broaden their political influence, with the support of right-wing Democrats and Christian Zionists. The end game of this growing political coalition: an impenetrable firewall of unceasing political/financial/diplomatic support for Israel in Washington, D.C.
In the end, of course, the success or failure of this destructive tactic will ultimately depend on the readiness of Jews and non-Jews alike to publicly stand down Israeli apartheid and ethnonationalism — and to advocate a vision of justice for all who live between the river and the sea.
An Open Letter to the Jewish Community from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council
We, the Rabbinical Council of Jewish Voice for Peace, stand by the recent reports which use the term ‘apartheid’ to describe Israeli rule over Palestinians. The past year’s reports by B’tselem, Human Rights Watch and now Amnesty International contain well-documented evidence describing how the State of Israel maintains a system of identity-baseddomination over Palestinians. This detailed evidence demonstrates the systemic and shocking human rights violations and extreme violence and cruelty unleashed upon Palestinians living both under Israeli military and civil jurisdiction.
Rabbi Brian Walt, one of the signers of this letter, grew up in South Africa under Apartheid. He writes: “The finding that Israel is an Apartheid state is shocking to me – and it should be to every Jew and person of conscience. Instead of demonizing these human rights organizations, we who care about our Jewish ethical and spiritual heritage must grapple with the harsh and deadly reality documented in these three reports.”
As people deeply committed to Jewish life and culture, we believe Jews should read these reports in the spirit of prophetic witness and atonement, like the texts we read on Yom Kippur, which challenge us to turn from violence and break the bonds of oppression so a new dawn can burst forth. Many of us have witnessed these realities on the ground for decades. The reports confirm what Palestinians have been telling us all along: Israel’s system of control is based on the idea of Jewish supremacy.
It is with deep sorrow that we once again witness leadership in Jewish institutional life ignore, dismiss or condemn the reports as antisemitic. On the day of the public release of Amnesty International’s report, leaders of the Reform movement issued an email calling on Reform rabbis and member congregations to condemn the report, claiming the decades-long research was “replete with discredited and inaccurate allegations, including a deeply wrong accusation of apartheid.”
Denial is a common response that surfaces when we are asked to face difficult realities that upend deeply held views. However, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International detail at length how Israel’s systemic policies, rooted in racism, have brought suffering to millions of Palestinian lives. Shouldn’t these claims cause us to at least read the reports and hear the direct testimony of thousands upon thousands of Palestinians?
We believe that we must face the moral challenge that these reports present to us. As Hillel said, “Go study!” We call on all people of conscience, including Jewish people in our communities, to read the reports carefully. Secondly, we call on the leaders of the Jewish community, rabbinic and lay, to facilitate open discussion on the reports, including inviting representatives of the organizations to talk about the report in your community and to answer questions. We also encourage rabbis and leaders to facilitate open and respectful dialogue and debate in our communities about the issues raised in these reports. We cannot work for healing justice if we live in denial of the reality Palestinians have been facing every day since 1948.
As Jews of conscience, Israel’s system of apartheid has created a moral emergency for us. We cannot turn away. Instead, we long for the kinds of conversation which accurately reflect the reality on the ground, a reality that B’Tselem calls Jewish Supremacy. The conclusion reached by these three well-respected human rights organizations that Israeli governance fits within the international definition of apartheid is a renewed calls to people of conscience. We must examine how the claims of these reports reveal the ways we are complicit in sustaining Israeli apartheid, and commit to repair for the systemic injustice choking Palestinian lives. May our study lead to active repair of the harms of apartheid. This is the only path to teshuvah.
When Amnesty International announced the release of a 278 page report entitled “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians,” you could already sense the storm clouds gathering. Even before it was actually released, the Israeli government publicly asked Amnesty to withdraw it, calling it “false, biased and antisemitic.” A group of six American Jewish organizations launched their own preemptive strike, claiming that the report was “unbalanced, inaccurate, and incomplete,” seeking only “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”
When the storm finally broke on February 2, it didn’t take long for the outrage to come raining down. US politicians from both sides of the aisle issued fierce condemnations (DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, called it “baseless”, “biased” and “steeped in antisemitism.”) The Jewish institutional establishment likewise let loose: the Anti-Defamation League pronounced it “hateful,” inaccurate” and “irresponsible;” the American Jewish Committee called the report “a canard” and a “libel;” and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, claimed the report sought “to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”
The three of the major American Jewish religious denominations piled on as well: the Union for Reform Judaism expressed its “profound disappointment and explicit condemnation” of the report; the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism labeled it “outrageously dishonest” and “deceitful;” and the Orthodox Union condemned the report as an “ideologically driven polemic.” (As of this writing, the Reconstructionist movement has yet to release a statement.)
It’s doubtful that the authors of these terse and hastily released statements actually read the report, which is nearly 300 pages and took four years to research and publish. And not surprisingly, none of the statements directly addressed the specific findings of the report beyond the use of “A” word. Rather, they rolled out their tired and increasingly desperate-sounding pro-Israel talking points: that such claims “demonized” the state of Israel, that Israel is a thriving democracy that gives equal rights to its Palestinian citizens and that criticism of Israel only serves to inflame antisemitism against Jews.
By contrast, statements from Liberal Zionist organizations were less harsh, admitting the reality of Israel’s human rights abuses even as they disagreed with the report’s use of the term “apartheid.” J Street threaded the needle very carefully, affirming that “Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary” while calling out Israel’s “deepening de facto annexation of the territory it has occupied since 1967.” When it came to the report itself, however, J Street declined to “endorse its findings or the recommendations.”
The response released by Tru’ah: The Rabbinical Call for Human Rights condemned “the very real human rights abuses that Palestinians face every day,” but objected to “many of the report’s assertions, language choices, assumptions, and conclusions.” (They remained notably silent on the specifics of their objections.) In the end, Tru’ah’s true agenda was revealed by their call for a negotiated settlement for a two-state solution: an argument for essentially maintaining the status quo even as Israel’s human rights abuses continue unabated on the ground.
It’s worth noting that while both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights groups B’Tselem released similar reports on Israeli apartheid last year, neither inspired the same level of collective vehemence as the Amnesty report. This is likely because as one of the most prominent and well-known human rights organizations in the world, Amnesty’s report makes it that much more acceptable to isolate Israel as an apartheid state. Israel and its supporters know full well that Amnesty’s use of a term such as this can move Israel more quickly down the road to international pariah status.
This report also differs from previous reports in terms of its conclusions, particularly its explicit support of Palestinian refugees right of return. And while it does not openly endorse BDS, the report does call on governments and regional actors to “immediately suspend the direct and indirect supply, sale or transfer, including transit and trans- shipment to Israel of all weapons, munitions and other military and security equipment, including the provision of training and other military and security assistance.” It likewise encourages them to “institute and enforce a ban on products from Israeli settlements in (their) markets and “regulate companies domiciled in (their) jurisdiction in a manner to prohibit companies’ operation in settlements or trade in settlements goods”
In the end, human rights reports alone cannot themselves hold Israel accountable. They can, however, create space to make it more acceptable to publicly acknowledge the systemic roots of Israel’s crimes against Palestinians. As journalist Maureen Murphy wrote in her excellent piece, What Makes Amnesty’s Apartheid Report Different?: “Amnesty’s report is a strong indicator that an analysis beyond the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is becoming mainstream.”
In the meantime, I hope that anyone concerned with justice in Israel/Palestine will do what the organizations above cynically failed to do: read, consider, discuss and share the content of this important and groundbreaking report.
At our December 2021 meeting, board of my congregation, Tzedek Chicago, voted unanimously to recommend amending our core values statement to state explicitly that anti-Zionism (rather than “non-Zionism”) should be articulated as one of our core values.
Recognizing the significance of such a step, the board also agreed unanimously that this decision should be processed, discussed and ultimately put to a membership vote. To this end, Tzedek Chicago is holding a series of town hall meetings and will send out an online ballot to members in March.
Here, below, is the text of a Q/A that the Tzedek board drafted and sent out to its members to explain its decision:
Why did Tzedek Chicago originally include “Non-Zionism” as part of our core values?
When our congregation was established in 2015, our founders developed a set of core values to provide the ideological foundation for our congregational life. In our final values statement, we included the following words in the section entitled, “A Judaism Beyond Nationalism”:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people—an injustice that continues to this day.
From the outset, our founders made a conscious decision to state that Tzedek Chicago would not be a Zionist congregation. Most Jewish congregations in North America are Zionist by default. Among other things, Tzedek Chicago was created to provide a Jewish congregational community for those who did not identify as Zionists—and who did not want to belong to congregations that celebrated Zionism as a necessary aspect of Jewish life.
Why is the board recommending the change from “Non-Zionist” to “Anti-Zionist?”
Zionism, the movement to establish a sovereign Jewish nation state in historic Palestine, is dependent upon the maintenance of a demographic Jewish majority in the land. Since its establishment, Israel has sought to maintain this majority by systematically dispossessing Palestinians from their homes through a variety of means, including military expulsion, home demolition, land expropriation and revocation of residency rights, among others.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the fundamental injustice at the core of Zionism. In its 2021 report, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem concluded that Israel is an “apartheid state,” describing it as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the river to the sea.” In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a similar report stating Israel’s “deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”
Given the reality of this historic and ongoing injustice, we have concluded that it is not enough to describe ourselves as “non-Zionist.” We believe this neutral term fails to honor the central anti-racist premise that structures of oppression cannot be simply ignored; on the contrary, they must be transformed. As political activist Angela Davis has famously written, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”
What about the claim that anti-Zionism is antisemitism?
While there are certainly individual anti-Zionists who are antisemites, it is disingenuous to claim that opposition to Zionism is fundamentally antisemitic. Judaism (a centuries-old religious peoplehood) is not synonymous with Zionism (a modern nationalist ideology that is not exclusively Jewish). Since the founding of the Zionist movement in the 19th century, there has always been active Jewish opposition to Zionism.
While Jewish anti-Zionists are still a minority in the Jewish community today, their numbers have been increasing, particularly among those under 30 years of age. Not coincidentally, we are witnessing increasingly vociferous calls from the Israeli government, Israel advocates and Jewish institutions to label anti-Zionism as antisemitism. There have also been public calls to categorize anti-Zionist Jews as “Un-Jews” and “Jews in name only.” Given the tenor of the current moment, we believe the need for public stances by principled Jewish anti-Zionists is all the more critical.
“Anti-Zionist” describes what we oppose—but what are we positively advocating for?
While we affirm that Tzedek Chicago is an anti-Zionist congregation, that is not all we are. This value is but one aspect of a larger vision we refer to in our core values statement as a “Judaism Beyond Borders.” Central to this vision is an affirmation of the diaspora as the fertile ground from which Jewish spiritual creativity has flourished for centuries. Indeed, Jewish life has historically taken root, adapted and blossomed in many lands throughout the world. At Tzedek Chicago we seek to develop and celebrate a diasporic consciousness that joyfully views the entire world as our homeland.
Moving away from a Judaism that looks to Israel as its fully realized home releases us into rich imaginings of what the World to Come might look like, where it might be, and how we might go about inhabiting it now. This creative windfall can infuse our communal practices, rituals, and liturgy. We also believe that Jewish diasporic consciousness has the real potential to help us reach a deeper solidarity with those who have been historically colonized and oppressed. As we state in our core values:
We understand that our Jewish historical legacy as a persecuted people bequeaths to us a responsibility to reject the ways of oppression and stand with the most vulnerable members of our society. In our educational programs, celebrations and liturgy, we emphasize the Torah’s repeated teachings to stand with the oppressed and to call out the oppressor.
Does Tzedek Chicago expect every member to personally adhere to this new position?
As is the case with all of our core values, this position is not an ideological “litmus test” for membership at Tzedek Chicago. It is, rather, part of our collective vision as a religious community. We understand that every individual member of our congregation will struggle with these issues and must come to their own personal conclusions. The main question for all of Tzedek’s members is not “must I personally accept every one of these core values?” but rather, “given these values, is this a congregation that I would like to support and to which I would like to belong?”
What will this decision mean for our congregation going forward?
We believe the core value of anti-Zionism will open up many important opportunities for our community. It will guide us in the programs we develop, the Jewish spiritual life we create, the coalitions we join and the public positions we take. In a larger sense, we believe this decision will create space for other Jewish congregations to take a similar stand—to join us in imagining and building a Jewish future beyond Zionism.
In the end, we are advocating for this congregational decision in the hopes that it may further catalyze Jewish participation in the worldwide movement to dismantle all systems of racism and oppression. May it happen בִּמְהֵרָה בְּיָמֵינוּ—bimheira be’yameinu—soon in our own day.
An op-ed version of this sermon was published in Truthout.
I’d like to begin my remarks this Yom Kippur with a sacred refrain that has surely been uttered aloud by many of us over the past several weeks:
Texas, what the hell?
That’s right Texas, what the hell? Just when we thought we’d heard it all from you, there was the news on September 1. In just one day the Texas state legislature all but banned abortions in their state, passed the most restrictive voting laws in the US, and allowed Texans to carry handguns openly without a license. And if that was not nearly enough, this past June, Texas’ governor signed a bill limiting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in public schools.
Now, I mention all of this very advisedly because I know we have members who live in Texas – and I’m sure some of them are attending our service at this very moment. And I must also note that these trends are not at all unique to that state. If truth be told, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and South Dakota, are currently preparing abortion bills identical to the Texas legislation, there are twenty other states other than Texas that allow permitless handgun carry, and as of August 26, twenty seven states have introduced bills or have otherwise taken steps to restrict Critical Race Theory.
So while it might feel satisfying for progressives to pile on Texas, it’s probably more accurate to say that this particular state represents a larger phenomenon that has been part of our national culture for some time. For lack of a better term, let’s call it the rage of the white American man.
White rage is, of course, nothing new, but it might be argued that it’s currently entering an era of renewed ferocity. Last month we learned from the Census Bureau that the percentage of white people in the US has actually decreased for the very first time. Since the last report ten years ago, the overall white population in the US has declined by almost 10%. In that same amount of time, the Latinx population grew by 23%, the Asian population increased by over 35% and the Black population grew by almost 6%.
When you consider that the United States was built on a foundation of white supremacy – that is, by white men, for white men – it’s not difficult to grasp the impact of news such as this. While the ranks of white supremacists may be shrinking, we can be sure that they won’t go away quietly. We know from history that a dying beast can still do a considerable amount of damage on the way down. Indeed, this is precisely what we’re seeing unfold in Texas and around the country: the anger of white supremacist, misogynist Americans increasingly galled by what their country is becoming.
And they are galled. They’re galled by the fact that the US actually had a black president for eight years. They’re galled that there’s a new national reckoning going on over the legacy of slavery and structural racism in our country. They’re galled by the increased national attention being paid to police violence against black people and by a Black Lives Matter movement that mobilized the largest mass protests in US history last summer. They are galled every time another statue of a Confederate is toppled in a Southern state, as was the case at the Virginia statehouse last week.
And it doesn’t stop there. They’re also galled when women, non-binary and trans people seek power over their own bodies – and really, when they just seek more power in general. They’re galled that there are now a record number of women serving in Congress, including a Palestinian-American and a hijab-wearing former refugee from Somalia. They’re galled by the #MeToo movement, which is literally removing sexually violent men from positions of power. Last November, they were particularly galled when a powerful voting rights organizing effort largely led by black women helped turn Georgia blue in both the Presidential and Congressional elections.
Of course, white anger over voting rights in this country didn’t begin last year. It surged in 1870, when the 15th Amendment technically gave black men the right to vote. It surged again in 1920, when the 19th Amendment technically gave women the right to vote. And it surged again in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act went into effect. Even as we celebrate these landmark legislative events, we can’t look away from the immense resentment and rage they engendered – and continue to engender – throughout the US, which makes it all the more crucial that we keep fighting for real universal enfranchisement.
As we contemplate how to respond to the events transpiring in Texas and around the country, it’s immensely important for us to understand the historical power of white rage. This phenomenon has been part of US national culture since this country’s founding on stolen land, and its dependance upon the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The current brand of self-righteous white rage is reminiscent of the racist backlash that played out during Reconstruction. So we shouldn’t be surprised by the current devastating setbacks to public policy; on the contrary, should expect them.
The staying power of white supremacist anger in this country sometimes reminds me of a certain Biblical trope. We’re all, of course, familiar with the story of creation in Genesis 1, in which an omnipotent God creates light out of darkness and separates the primordial waters of chaos. It’s a satisfying, deeply aspirational myth that expresses the vision of the world as it should be: a neat and tidy process by which the world moves from chaos to greater order and progress.
However, scholars have pointed out that there is another creation story embedded in the Bible, influenced by the epic myths of the Ancient Near East that portray a battle between the gods and powerful sea monsters that represent the primordial forces of chaos. Biblical books such as the Psalms, Job and Isaiah describe God’s battle with a mighty sea monster named Leviathan, among others. Unlike the orderly movement toward progress that we read about in Genesis 1, this other myth portrays creation as an ongoing and even desperate struggle. And while God generally gets the upper hand, it’s not at all clear in the Bible that the primordial sea monster is ever completely vanquished.
It sometimes occurs to me that our conventional, liberal view of history reflects a “Genesis 1 mindset,” i.e., an orderly movement toward greater progress, proceeding neatly from victory to victory. And while these landmark moments certainly represent political progress, they do not fundamentally change the foundational truth of this country. To put it differently, we too often forget that the sea monster is never fully vanquished. Yes, victories should be celebrated. But even more than that, they must also be protected.
If we were ever sanguine about the threat of white supremacist resentment in this country, we should have no doubt about it after the past four years of Trump, which literally culminated in an armed insurrection on the US Capitol. This rage is real and it’s mobilizing in truly frightening ways. It’s no coincidence that among the bills passed in Texas earlier this month was legislation loosening restrictions on gun carry laws. Indeed, the dramatic spike in gun ownership and the erosion of gun control measures around the country should make it clear to us that the threat of white nationalism is deadly serious.
So where do we go from here? How do we possibly resist such fierce and unrelenting rage? Perhaps the first step is to remember that more than anything else, white resentment is fueled by fear – and in truth, white supremacists have genuine cause to be fearful. They’re afraid because they know full well that there are more of us than there are of them – and that our numbers are growing. We should never forget that while fear may be their primary motivation, it’s also a sign of their fundamental weakness.
White nationalism is essentially a reactionary movement; that is to say, it has historically reacted to changes that genuinely threaten its power and hegemony in this country. But even though by definition, they’ve been playing defense, throughout American history, the liberal response to white supremacy has been to resist a strong offense as “too much,” “too radical,” or “too extreme.” White liberals often distance themselves from revolutionary people-of-color-led movements in this way. Those of us who are white must consciously resist this form of distancing, because this phenomenon is itself a form of white supremacy preservation.
During the years of the civil rights movement, many white liberal leaders would publicly criticize movement tactics they felt were too radical or extreme. This is precisely what Martin Luther King was addressing when he so memorably wrote from a Birmingham jail, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?” The black playwright Lorraine Hansberry put it even more succinctly; in a 1964 speech entitled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” she said publicly, “we have to find some way to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.”
In other words, as long as white supremacy is baked into the very systems that govern our country, we can ill afford to play defense. If anyone has any doubts, consider this: two months before the census reported the decrease in the white population in this country, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report that demonstrated how radically white minority rule pervades politics across the US. Despite the recent electoral gains for women and people of color, white men represent 30% of the population but 62% of state and national officeholders. By contrast, women and people of color constitute 51% and 40% of the US population respectively, but represent just 31% and 13% of officeholders.
When the Reflective Democracy Campaign released these findings, their director, Brenda Choresi Carter,said it very well: “We have a political system in general that is not built to include new voices and perspectives. It’s a system built to protect the people and the interests already represented in it. It’s like all systems. It’s built to protect the status quo.”
As I read those words, I can’t help but ask: isn’t this what Yom Kippur is ultimately all about? Every year at this season, we’re commanded to take a hard, unflinching look at the status quo, openly admit what needs changing, and commit to the hard work it will take to transform it. It’s an inherently radical idea: to proclaim every year that the status quo is unacceptable and that nothing short of genuine intervention will do. If our Yom Kippur prayers are to mean anything at all, we must be prepared to act upon this radical idea.
I know that many of you are involved in organizing and activist work that intervenes in our racist, inequitable systems so that they may more accurately serve the interests of all who live in this country. Truly, your efforts are an inspiration to me. Because in the end, when we fight for voting rights, reproductive justice, racial justice, economic equity, or any other issue, we’re not only advocating for specific causes that have suffered setbacks – we’re fighting to transform systems that are fundamentally unjust.
So when we sound the shofar with a long blast at the end of Yom Kippur, let’s not only regard it as the conclusion to this season. Let’s consider it a call to action for transformation in the year ahead. And when the inevitable setbacks occur, let us not respond with surprise or dismay; rather, let’s remind each other that setbacks and backlashes are a sign of their fear, not their strength. Let us never forget that there are more of us than there are of them – and if we see fit to summon our strength, we can indeed recreate the world we know is possible.
Gmar Hatimah Tovah – May we all be sealed for a year of life, of justice, of transformation.
As many of you know, in January of 2020 it was my great honor to become Tzedek Chicago’s full-time rabbi. Among my first orders of business at the time was to find an office and a more suitable facility for our congregation. As it turned out, my search didn’t last too long. Soon enough, along with the rest of the world Tzedek had to hunker down and make our home in the land of Zoom.
We weren’t at all sure what to expect in this strange new virtual world, but we certainly weren’t prepared for what happened next. In a word, we grew. We grew from two Shabbat services a month to weekly services, Torah studies, festival services and family programs. We instituted a weekly Wednesday afternoon gathering as a check-in for our members. We also held increasing numbers of adult educational opportunities and concerts. The pandemic truly transformed the life of our congregation in astonishing and unexpected ways.
It didn’t take us long to figure out why. It was a time of profound social isolation. We all felt it palpably, some of us more than others. The world craved connection – and in this strange new world, religious congregations had a particularly crucial role to play. Like so many other houses of worship, Tzedek served as a sacred virtual space where we could regularly gather and overcome our increasing separateness from one another.
But there was another way Tzedek grew as well: we grew geographically. Almost overnight, we gained regular members and attendees from around the country and around the world: from Canada, the UK, Germany and New Zealand, among many other places. Again, it didn’t take long to understand why. We’d always drawn our members from a wide swath of the Chicagoland area and even some surrounding states. We were never strictly a local congregation; from the very beginning we’ve been a community bound together by our convictions.
Those of us who founded Tzedek Chicago were very clear on this point: we really weren’t interested in creating another liberal Jewish congregation. We wanted to build a congregation on a foundation of core values. We emphasized “standing with the oppressed and calling out the oppressor.” We took “a stand against colonialism and militarism, especially when it is waged in our name as Jews and Americans.” We made a particular point of disavowing Zionism, stating that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against the Palestinian people – an injustice that continues to this day.”
When we founded Tzedek, we drafted our core values even before we recruited a single member of our congregation. We wanted to make sure that those who joined us would join because they sought a Jewish community that shared their values. We just knew that there was a significant and growing constituency for the vision of Judaism we sought to promote.
It’s been so gratifying to see how our faith has been validated these past six years. Speaking personally, it’s been a blessing for me. When I left my former congregation, I really never thought I’d work as a congregational rabbi again. I’m so grateful that Tzedek has given me this opportunity – and I’ve never, ever taken it for granted.
Over the years, I’ve received regular emails from folks from across the country and around the world asking if there was a congregation like Tzedek in their home communities. I’d almost always have to say no, I didn’t think there was. But starting in 2020, of course, that question became moot. We became a global congregation in ways we never could have dreamed. As the world opens up (may it happen soon in our day!) we’ll certainly reinstitute more in-person services and programs. But our congregational leadership has made it clear that going forward, we’ll continue to be a primarily virtual congregation. The pandemic has changed us indelibly – and we welcome this change. We’re excited by the prospect of broadening our membership even further around the world to include anyone and everyone who shares our particular vision of Jewish community.
While I’m on the subject of vision, I’d like to return for a moment to our core values, and why they continue to be so critical – perhaps now more than ever. I mentioned that when we drafted our values, we wanted to be explicit about the fact that we weren’t Zionist. Unlike other congregations, we weren’t praying for a “just peace” or “coexistence” between both sides. We didn’t claim that our members held “a variety of views” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We stated quite explicitly that we opposed the very concept of Jewish nation-statism. On that point we were, and continue to be, unequivocal.
We weren’t the first progressive congregation to take this stance, but we were certainly among the very few. Over the past few years, the numbers of non and anti-Zionist communities has grown to a certain extent. Not long after our founding, Jewish Voice for Peace created a Havurah Network for spiritual communities such as ours, and we’ve been a proud, participating member of the network from the very beginning. Still, I confess to some disappointment that there still aren’t more congregations willing to take this kind of a public stand.
There’s no question that the narrative on Israel/Palestine is changing. Last May, the Jewish Electorate Institute, a group led by prominent Jewish Democrats, released the results of a poll in which 34% of US Jewish voters agreed that “Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is similar to racism in the United States,” 25% agreed that “Israel is an apartheid state” and 20% said they preferred “establishing one state that is neither Jewish nor Palestinian.” As you might expect, when these findings are narrowed down to Jews under 40, they skew significantly higher.
It’s clearly getting harder and harder to ignore what Zionism has wrought. This past year was also the occasion of a report from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem entitled, “This is Apartheid: A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” The report ended with these astonishing, unprecedented words:
As painful as it may be to look reality in the eye, it is more painful to live under a boot…Nevertheless, people created this regime and people can make it worse – or work to replace it. That hope is the driving force behind this position paper. How can people fight injustice if it is unnamed? Apartheid is the organizing principle, yet recognizing this does not mean giving up. On the contrary: it is a call for change.
Tragically, last year was also the occasion of yet another devastating military assault on Gaza, killing 260 Palestinians, including at least 129 civilians, of whom 66 were children. As with past Israeli attacks on Gaza, I found those weeks in May to be utterly unbearable. The massive loss of life. Entire families wiped out. Scores of Palestinians left grievously wounded and homeless. On top of that, of course, there was the appalling response of the Jewish community. Not just the organized Jewish community, whose craven support of Israel we’ve come to expect, but the so-called liberal, progressive Jewish community, who reacted to this moral outrage with equivocation – responding to war crimes committed in their name with rationalizations and hand wringing; with “yes, buts” or “both sides-isms.”
When we openly state that our congregation is not Zionist, that’s more than mere semantics. It is a statement that the Judaism we lift up will not and cannot include apartheid, settler colonialism and militarism. This is not merely a political position – it’s a spiritual statement of conscience about what it means to be Jewish and what kinds of Jewish communities we seek to create. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that among all the issues that divide the Jewish community today, the role of Zionism is far and away the most critical. Can we truly imagine any other ideological divide that is more important – more morally consequential – than this?
Lately, we’ve been hearing news of fairly prominent congregations that promote an “open tent” approach when it comes to Zionism – i.e., congregations that openly make room for the views of non and anti-Zionists along with liberal Zionists in their communities. As welcome as such a development is, however, I have to ask myself, is this so-called open-tent ultimately tenable? Is it sustainable? Is it even desirable: to build congregational communities in which members have such fundamentally different moral approaches to being Jewish? In which some congregational members cherish and celebrate Israel, while others view it as an apartheid, settler colonial state? However well meaning, I cannot view this as anything other than an untenable, unbridgeable divide.
In my very first sermon for Tzedek Chicago, I said the following:
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive,” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
Six years later, I feel this even more strongly: too often, liberal Jewish congregations wield the word “inclusion” to provide them with convenient cover for taking a stand. But sooner or later, there’s a point in which the value of inclusion must give way to moral conviction. Sooner or later, we’re going to have to come clean about what kind of Judaism we seek to affirm, what kind of Jewish spiritual communities we seek to build. I can’t begin to tell you how grateful I am for Tzedek, a Jewish home in which I can speak my truth as a rabbi unabashedly and without compromise. I hope and trust it’s a community where youcan openly express your most consequential Jewish truths as well.
On Kol Nidre, we affirm the vows we make that we know we will not or cannot fulfill in the coming year. This Kol Nidre – and every Kol Nidre – let us also affirm the vows on which we will not and cannot compromise. Let us affirm that our Judaism does not depend upon the dispossession of others, but on the liberation of all. Let us continue building our congregation into a global community that is the living breathing embodiment of this vow.
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we all go from strength to strength in the coming year and beyond.
When I tried to think of the most appropriate saying I could offer you this Rosh Hashanah, I kept coming back to those famous Yiddish words from The Partisans Song: mir zaynen do – “we are here.” It somehow feels right to invoke words of resistance at this particular moment, doesn’t it? It’s been a hard and painful battle for us all this past year, but we are here. Tragically, too many of our comrades are no longer with us, but, nevertheless, mir zaynen do. We are here.
In an age of pandemic, just surviving itself can feel like a victory. So here we are: to date, COVID has claimed 640,000 lives in the US and over 4.5 million worldwide. And though it felt as if we’d finally turned a corner last spring, the arrival of the Delta variant was a brutal reminder that the pandemic is not at all behind us. The number of deaths is climbing again. Hospitals around the country are filling up, in some states to over-capacity. And though Trump is no longer our President, the Republican party continues to politicize the pandemic with ever-astonishing cynicism.
Despite a slight rebound last spring, things are still economically dire in our country. The percentages of those who are unemployed and uninsured are still shamefully high. Just this last August, the Supreme Court struck down eviction protections for most of the US, putting as many as 3.5 million households at risk of losing their homes, including hundreds of thousands of tenants this year alone.
Last Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that, in a very real way, we’re all in a state of grief over the world we’ve lost. If we were to continue with this metaphor – and I still believe it’s an apt one – we’ve now gone through one full year of mourning. In Jewish tradition, the year following a loss is a spiritually intense time for mourners, traditionally marked by the regular recitation of Kaddish. When the first year is up, the intensive part of our observance is lifted and we begin our reemergence back into the world. We know, however, that we won’t be reentering the world as it was. That world has been forever changed.
And so, even though the year of formal mourning is over, we’ll continue to say Kaddish regularly for the rest of our lives. We will never stop grieving what we’ve lost. The pain may come and go, but it never goes away entirely. Indeed, sometimes it will grip us when we least expect it. At the same time, however, we know that thingscan get better. If we work at it. If we affirm the truth of our healing and actively participate in the healing process.
So all of this to say yes, it is one year later and yes, we are still experiencing the pain of the loss of the world we once knew. But while the reality of what was lost is still brutally painful for us, it is also true that there has been healing. We are not, in fact, in the same place that we were last year.
Most obviously – and most importantly – last Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think any of us would dare to imagine that we would see a COVID vaccine any time soon. Then just a few months later, the first fully-tested immunization was approved. Let’s pause now and just try to grasp the enormity of this. It is actually unprecedented in scientific history to go from the onset of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine in less than a year. There is really no other word for it: the vaccine is a blessing. It is saving scores of lives as we speak and it remains our greatest hope to finally reach the end of this pandemic.
It has often occurred to me, when we gather for the High Holidays and pray to be written in the Book of Life for the coming year, we’re essentially coming to grips with the terrifying truth of our mortality. Every Rosh Hashanah we say the unsayable out loud: this time next year, some of us will still be alive and some of us will not. The Book of Life is a stark liturgical metaphor of this immensely painful truth.
But it also occurs to me that maybe it’s not quite that simple. Maybe the book is a work in progress. Maybe, just maybe, there are a myriad of ways that we take the radical, audacious step to write ourselves into the Book of Life. If we ever needed a reminder of this, just think: last year, after the holidays were over and the gates were supposedly closed, so many people from around the world: doctors and scientists and researchers and immunologists and donors and vaccine developers and caregivers heroically took it upon themselves to write scores of human souls into the Book of Life.
So before I continue any further, I’d like us to pause and honor the blessing of this moment – to offer a blessing of gratitude for having been kept alive long enough to reach this New Year. Please join together with me:
Blessed are you, spirit of the universe, you have given us life, you kept us alive and you have brought us all to arrive at this season together.
Now of course, while the arrival of a vaccine has been a game changer, it has decidedly not brought about the end of the pandemic. And in some ways I think this kind of magical thinking has contributed to the pain and confusion of our current moment. Last spring, when the shelter orders ended and the re-openings began, we all experienced a collective euphoria and elation that the world was finally getting back to normal. That’s why the mutations of the virus and the arrival of variants has been so brutal. That’s why we’re asking the questions now: will this ever end? Will it ever get any better?
Again, these are the very same questions we ask when we go through the experience of grief: will things ever get back to normal? Will it ever get any better? Yes, the questions are the same – and the answers are the same as well. No, things will not get back to “normal.” But yes, it canget better. If we work at it.
We know that this coronavirus will never be eradicated completely. The key is to suppress it to the point that it no longer poses a significant threat to us. When enough people have gained some immunity through either vaccination or infection – preferably vaccination – the coronavirus will transition from pandemic to “endemic.” It won’t be eliminated, but it won’t upend our lives anymore. It won’t cause our ICUs to overflow, force us to shelter at home and wreak havoc with our economy. We can learn to live with it.
So therein lies both the blessing and the challenge for us this Rosh Hashanah. The arrival of the vaccine last year was an undeniable blessing. And this year, it seems to me, our challenge is to not squander that blessing. Our challenge is to advocate in no uncertain terms for the blessing of this vaccine to be spread as widely as is humanly possible in this country and throughout the world.
I would go as far as to say that vaccine advocacy is, in fact, nothing short of a sacred obligation. In Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – is our most sacred religious value, the one that supersedes all others. That means fighting misinformation is pikuach nefesh. Advocating for vaccine mandates is pikuach nefesh. Making vaccines available to underserved populations that lack access to health care is pikuach nefesh.
And there is every reason to believe we can succeed in these efforts. Strategically speaking, I don’t think it makes much sense to try to convince people who utterly refuse to get vaccinated to change their minds. I think the more effective strategy is to make the vaccine as widely available as possible to anyone and everyone. According to a recent poll, nearly four out of five adults in this country say they are ready and willing to get vaccinated. As well, the number of parents who report they are planning to vaccinate their children are increasing – more than at any other time during the pandemic. This is particularly critical, given that vaccines for children five years old and up will likely be authorized soon – and clinical trials are currently underway for children as young as six months old.
I also want to stress that this sacred obligation is not merely local but global. Truly, one of the most shameful aspects of 2020 – and this was a year that had no shortage of shameful moments – is the phenomenon known as “vaccine apartheid.” The development of vaccines was indeed the result of the unprecedented cooperation between researchers, governments, and businesses throughout the world. But when it came time to roll them out, wealthy countries hoarded enough to vaccinate their citizens several times over. Now these countries are already administering booster shots – while fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received any vaccinations at all.
But ironically enough, it is actually in our self-interest to ensure global vaccine distribution. Because the longer the world goes unvaccinated, the greater the risk for new variants to emerge that are even more dangerous than Delta – and the longer it will take for those of us in wealthy countries to achieve endemic status. This is one of the many tragic realities of the current moment: in this age of rising nativism and hyper-nationalism, we’re discovering that viruses don’t respect national borders. Economically powerful countries might find safety for their citizens in the short term, but as ever, our well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth.
Here are some links that will give you more information about how you can participate in advocacy for global vaccine distribution. I encourage you to get involved in this sacred effort, whether in your own home country or abroad, to ensure that this life-saving blessing is made as widely available as possible.
On Rosh Hashanah, we undertake a cheshbon nefesh – a soul accounting – of ourselves and of the greater community. We examine deeply and unsparingly the ways we as individuals are accountable to the collective. In our 21st century world, I believe it’s imperative that we define the collective as nothing less than the global community. I can’t think of a better kavanah – spiritual intention – for the New Year than that: to affirm that our well-being is irrevocably tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth.
So this Rosh Hashanah, let us joyously say to one another, Mir Zaynen Do – We are here. Let us grieve those we’ve lost and celebrate the lives we’ve saved. Let’s continue to show up for one another. Let us fight every moment of this New Year to write ourselves and our neighbors into the Book of Life.
May it be a Shanah Tovah – a good year, a Shanah Bri’ah – a year of health, a Shanah Shel Hayyim – a year of life – for us all.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, contains the well-known commandment:
“You must love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
While it’s often characterized as the most repeated commandment in the Torah – occurring a total of 36 times, that’s actually a bit of hyperbole – it actually appears only six times. The number 36 seems to have originated from a passage in the Talmud  but in the end, I’d suggest that the accuracy of this claim is really irrelevant. For liberal Jews in particular, this commandment looms large because it’s a powerful statement of collective empathy. The Jewish people, who have historically lived as “strangers in strange lands,” are as such commanded to love and protect all who know the experience of the stranger.
The Hebrew word for “stranger,” is ger – a legal term in the Bible for “resident non-citizen.” Throughout the laws of the Torah, there is a clear concern expressed for the legal status of gerim, who are often included in the ritual life of ancient Israel. In the commandment to keep the Shabbat, for instance, the “ger within your settlements” is included in the list of those who must cease from work. God also adjures Israelites repeatedly that there must be “one law” that governs the ger as well as the Israelites.
Given the Torah’s tolerant attitude toward the “stranger,” this commandment is popularly invoked by Jewish communal leaders, particularly in reference to the issues of immigrant justice and refugee rights. This statement from the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is a classic example, using the commandment to highlight the classic American dream of immigrant “opportunity.”
Our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today, and we affirm our commitment to create the same opportunities for today’s immigrants that were so valuable to our own community not so many years ago.
Upon deeper examination, however, this use of the commandment to “love the stranger” is not as powerfully straightforward as it may first appear. This commandment – like all commandments in the Torah – is directed toward the Israelites as they prepare to assume a position of power. Even more critically, their position of power will be attained by means of conquest.
In fact, this week’s Torah portion – the very same one that contains this famously empathic commandment – also contains a divine command to the Israelites to brutally dispossess and destroy the peoples of Canaan:
You shall destroy the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity…The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic, until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kings into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.
(Deuteronomy 7:16, 22-24)
In this context, we would thus do well to ask ourselves, what does it mean for Jews – particularly white Jews – to invoke this Biblical verse as we dwell on land stolen by a settler colonial power from its indigenous population? Or to put it another way, before intoning the commandment to love the stranger, we might first ask ourselves, “who is the real stranger here?”
Indeed, we cannot deny the fact that the Biblical conquest tradition has historically been used – and continues to be used – to justify colonial dispossession, turning indigenous peoples into strangers in their own lands. In other words, the definition of who is a “citizen” and who is a “stranger” is – and has always been – determined by those who wield the power.
Where does this leave us, then? Is it even possible for Jews who cherish Biblical tradition to read the Torah through a decolonial lens?
I believe it is. I would suggest that the first step is to ask questions precisely such as these. To avoid the temptation to ignore or wish away these kinds of texts; to actively challenge and interrupt the Biblical conquest tradition head on. For there is no getting around it: the Exodus story is not only about a people liberated by God from slavery – it is also about a people commanded by God to conquer and annihilate the Canaanites before occupying the land they inhabit.
Reading the Torah through a decolonial lens also means coaxing out and amplifying the voices of the “strangers” in the text – the disenfranchised and colonized who might otherwise be voiceless to us. In this regard, I’ve learned a great deal from the pedagogy of commentators from outside Jewish tradition. One such teacher is the Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Warrior, who has written powerfully about the Biblical conquest tradition in his essay, “Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians:”
The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus stories with Canaanites eyes.
I find another important teacher in the work of black womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, whose book “Sisters in the Wilderness” lifts up the voice of the Biblical character Hagar as a role model for African-American women:
Hagar’s heritage was African as was black women’s. Hagar was a slave. Black women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar was brutalized by her slave owner, the Hebrew woman Sarah. The slave narratives of African-American women and some of the narratives of contemporary day-workers tell of the brutal or the cruel treatment black women have received from the wives of slave masters and from contemporary white female employers.
I realize that interpretations such as these are undeniably challenging for Jews who read the text literally, identifying Jewish experience exclusively with the experience of the Israelites. It is even more challenging for white Jews who benefit from power and privilege to reckon with the ways we are complicit in the European Christian legacy of colonization – a legacy that continues to do harm even now.
I would suggest that the commandment to “love the stranger” can never be truly honored if it comes from a position of power or noblesse oblige. It can only be honored when those in power step back and amplify the voices of strangers so that they may assume a rightful place of prominence in the narrative. In so doing, we may yet come to see that the decolonization of the text is in fact inseparable from the decolonization of the world in which we live.
 Exodus 22:20, Exodus 23:9, Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:19, Deuteronomy 24:17-18, Deuteronomy 24:21-22. Some versions of this commandment read “Do not oppress the stranger…”